It was 10 years to the day since Exeter made their Premiership bow and it is a measure of just how far they have come that their march towards a fifth straight final looks unstoppable. Again they fielded their second team but again they had too much for one of the most fancied teams in the league before the restart, Tom O’Flaherty coming up with a crucial try in the last 10 minutes.
In many ways it was not a vintage Exeter performance, they did not dominate possession nor territory in the manner they tend to, but in another it was – Rob Baxter has cultivated a side who know precisely how to win matches. He has them so well drilled that it seems not to matter whether it is the first-choice XV who ripped Worcester to shreds last time, or the reserves who downed Bristol on their own patch. This was Exeter’s fifth in a row since the restart and they already look nailed on for a return to the final.
You have to feel for Northampton, who showed considerable character to lead by two points before O’Flaherty’s try but this was a fifth straight home loss in the Premiership. Chris Boyd had warned beforehand that defeat here would mean their league hopes were over and they would prioritise their European Champions Cup quarter-final. The bad news for Northampton is that it is away to Exeter.
For a team who had lost three of their four games since the restart and for whom victory was imperative if they were to remain in the hunt for the play-offs, Northampton did not begin with the kind of intent Boyd would have wanted. Far from it, in fact. They were rushed in possession but, more significantly, rancid in defence.
Exeter had two tries in the first 12 minutes, each well worked, with the Chiefs, as is their way, going through plenty of phases to eventually create an opening. Sean Lonsdale will have few easier finishes than his side’s first, however, ghosting through a huge gap with Henry Taylor and George Furbank both at fault. For the second, Furbank was again caught out but he could do little about the two-on-ones with which he was faced – Alec Hepburn giving Jannes Kirsten a clear run under the posts.
To Northampton’s immense credit, they did not buckle and Dan Biggar deserves a lot of the praise for that. Teimana Harrison is the Northampton captain but there is only one voice audible from under the posts. The Wales fly-half was demanding more effort from his side and they certainly showed that in stringing 25 phases together in and around the Exeter 22, only for Tomas Francis to come up with a crucial turnover.
Undeterred, Saints kept coming. It was still frantic but they were beginning to make inroads and, after another siege of the Exeter line, David Ribbans eventually went over under the posts from close range. Northampton were within seven and back in what was shaping up as a classic tussle. Exeter, quiet since their two tries, threatened again but a colossal hit from Biggar stopped them.
Saints lost Ahsee Tuala before the half, though Taqele Naiyaravoro is not a bad replacement, and the hosts had their second try when James Fish slipped through the Exeter defence and found Taylor in support. It was a move orchestrated by Biggar – the only surprise being that he missed the conversion, which would have taken Northampton in level at the break. As it was, they trailed 14-12 but there was little doubt who was in the ascendancy.
Less than two minutes after the restart, Northampton were over again. Rory Hutchinson – one of Saints’ standout players last season – arced his way down the right, then in field and offloaded to Biggar, who might have gone on his own. He did not quite back himself but after the ball was swiftly recycled Ribbans was able to reach out and dot down for his second.
Exeter by this stage found opportunities to venture into Northampton territory a rarity but on one of the few occasions Tom O’Flaherty made ground down the right, Gareth Steenson was soon reducing the deficit to two points with a penalty in front of the posts.
When Exeter were awarded a penalty on halfway with 10 minutes to go it looked ominous for Saints and sure enough, a driving lineout took the Chiefs close before O’Flaherty bundled over in the corner.